Muslim has the human right to hide her face at trial, judge told
The woman, who denies a charge of witness intimidation, had previously been told by Judge Peter Murphy that she would have to show her face to enter a plea so she could be identified.
She had argued that it was against her religious beliefs to show her face to men.
Yesterday the same judge allowed her to enter the dock to plead not guilty while wearing a niqab after a female police officer, who saw her face when she was photographed after her arrest, had a private viewing with her at Blackfriars Crown Court in London.
The judge then heard legal argument about whether the woman from London, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, should be allowed to stand trial without removing her veil and is due to hand down written directions on Monday.
The woman’s barrister, Susan Meek, argued she had a right to wear the veil during trial under Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which safeguards religious beliefs. She also highlighted the “tolerant” approach taken to Islamic dress in the UK.
“She is entitled to wear it in private and in public,” Ms Meek said. “That right to wear the niqab also extends to the courtroom.
“There is no legislation in the UK in respect of the wearing of the niqab. There is no law in this country banning it.”
Judge Murphy allowed the woman to enter the dock at Blackfriars Crown Court and deny a charge of intimidation after she had been identified in a private room by the female police officer.
The Metropolitan Police constable, who was present when the defendant was photographed following her arrest in June, then swore on oath that it was the same woman under the niqab in the dock.
After the plea was taken, the court heard legal argument about the upcoming trial.
Ms Meek said that the defendant’s only active participation in her trial would be giving evidence, if she does so, and suggested the jury would be able to make a judgment based on her answers and body language despite the veil.
She said the defendant should be subject to the same rights as witnesses or victims of crime who appeared in court.
“If she chooses to remain with her face veil on when giving evidence that is something she will no doubt be spoken to about by the judge in front of the jury,” she added.
She continued: “The jury will be able to determine her demeanour while wearing the veil.
“Demeanour is not just how their mouth moves, it is how their head moves, their eyes move, their hands move. That will be fully visible to the jury and no bar to her giving evidence.”
The jury would also be able to see her arrest mugshot, Ms Meek said, and if she is later convicted the press and public would also be allowed to see it.
Prosecutor Kate Wilkinson asked whether the woman would be held in contempt if she still refused to show her face and whether a ruling to remove the veil would clash with her right to a fair trial.
Judge Murphy ruled out sitting with a specially-chosen all-female jury. He said the defendant, who is on bail, would have to attend on Monday and be identified in the same way.
The procedure so far was welcomed by human rights charity Liberty. Legal director James Welch said: “These matters require balance and ongoing discretion, but the UK has a long history of tolerance and is capable of setting an important example to others in Europe and beyond.”